By Dr John Rand, D.V.M. –
Probably the most common complaint from owners this time of year involves trying to solve their pets’ itch-related issues. Owners and pets are often equally miserable from the sometimes incessant scratching, biting, and licking. They are looking for help and looking for answers. They have very often (mis)diagnosed their pet either with some rare and obscure disease, or with everyone’s newest favorite, food allergies from grains and by-products. After careful examination nose to tail, along with a detailed history, we can often readily determine, or at least highly suspect, an allergy to fleas.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD), is a hypersensitivity to flea bites. When fleas feed on animals they inject small amounts of saliva into the skin. In normal dogs and cats the presence of this saliva elicits a mild itch response. In pets with FAD, however, their immune systems respond with a tremendous amount of inflammation and an intense itch that persists for some time, leaving the dog or cat scratching, biting, and licking for long after the flea is gone. The biting and scratching is often so intense that the pets damage their skin badly enough to allow normal bacterial and fungal organisms to invade the skin, causing a skin infection. The secondary skin infection not only adds to and perpetuates the itchiness, but also tacks on another problem atop the flea situation that started the whole mess.
Although flea bites can occur essentially anywhere on the body, dogs are most commonly affected near the tail base, rear, and groin areas. Cats can show up with a similar pattern of disease, but can also show signs around their neck and head.
The prevalence of flea allergy is extremely widespread. Nationally, FAD can account for up to 50% of all canine and feline skin cases – in this part of the country, and at this time of year, the percentages are surely higher. In some sense, when any itchy pet comes in, they have FAD until proven otherwise.
“Not my pet, doc. I have never seen a SINGLE flea.”
– A combination of dark fur or skin, thick coats, and excessive biting and grooming rids many of these very itchy pets of their fleas. Once bitten, though, the saliva is in the skin, and the biting and scratching will continue.
“But my other pets aren’t biting and scratching at all.”
– Your other pets (and the house itself) are probably the bulk of the problem. Pets that are not allergic are largely unaffected by the presence of even large numbers of fleas. They do, however, constantly shed hundreds of thousands of flea eggs all over your house. If you are not treating all of your pets and their environment, you will never win this battle. You can count on that.
With so many flea products on the market today, which product should you choose? Most flea medications can work for most pets most of the time. Animals with flea allergy, though, require very strong and very religious use of these products. Not all flea medications are created equal! Frequency, potency, safety, mechanism(s) of action, etc. are very important to understand when trying to get this problem solved. Please always consult with your veterinarian on which product or products are recommended for your specific situation.
The Animal Clinic